15 min read

The Revolution Will Not Be Shoegazed (Or Maybe It Will)

The Revolution Will Not Be Shoegazed (Or Maybe It Will)

A heated online brawl can be nice, especially when not all of the participants are outright scumbags. Like one of those divorces between liberal parents that, while not without its share of hurt feelings, you can take comfort in knowing that, in just a few years, they’ll all be sitting around the same Thanksgiving table in Northampton or Portland or wherever, new wives and husbands and non-binary throuples sitting side by side, sharing slabs of Tofurkey, and griping about whichever president has been out of office long enough to be misremembered as anything other than a monied and buffoonish mass murderer. Occasionally these online brawls can nice even outside of the voyeuristic pleasure they momentarily provide as dustraction from our own inconsolable pain! Sometimes they even make you wonder what Slowdive song was playing during the storming of the Bastille.

So it was this last week, when Tobi Vail, a founding member of the punk group Bikini Kill, tweeted a strong negative opinion about the musical genres known as “shoegaze” and “dream pop,” and every single person I know or have ever met, either being in a shoegaze/dream pop band themselves currently, having been in a shoegaze or dream pop band within the last two decades, or having recently (or within the last two decades) slept with someone who is or was in a shoegaze or dream pop band, responded with the amount of heat that slander of something held so dear warranted. As with most situations like this, I strongly disagreed with Ms. Vail right up until it became clear that everyone was disagreeing with her. At which point I, knowing every song on Revolution Girl Style Now by heart and being true to a nature only as immovable as a good God wishes it to be, decided I agreed with her. If not factually, then spiritually. And if not spiritually, then for good old fashioned kicks.

Point is: discussing the minutiae of niche musical genres, as fought about on New Tech oligarchal platforms that monetize the labour we have all decided to provide for free, is my business. And business has plateaued. So let’s discuss. At length. Please subscribe and share.

(Also, how our various chosen subcultures intersect with politics and larger culture isn't trivial to me. I mean, compared to the impending catastrophe in Afghanistan it certainly is. For that, donate here, here, and here. But compared to, say, the Grammys? Shoegaze's utility as a soundtrack to revolution is extremely not trivial! Caring about the Grammys is like caring who the shareholders of British Petroleum picked as their favorite gas station attendant.)

What Tobi Vail tweeted was, “Can someone explain to my why people who play guitar have decided to revive shoegaze/dream pop and embrace dumb retro shit like Weezer in an era filled with violence, economic inequality, and abortion bans? The guitar pedal industrial complex is not the sound of the revolution.”

She followed up with, “Sorry to be so grumpy but I couldn't make it until noon before clicking on another touring band only to be assaulted by the sound of their dumb guitar pedal bullshit.”

There is, as the cliche goes, a lot to unpack here.

For the uninitiated (hi dad I love you) it’s worth explaining what some of these terms mean. Shoegaze is a kind of guitar pop/rock, invented in the 1980s by bands such as My Bloody Valentine, that utilizes a number of guitar effects and tunings to evoke a heavy/not heavy wash of hazy ennui and (sometimes) romantic discontentment. Dad, you may recall buying me My Bloody Valentine’s iconic 1991 album, Loveless, for Christmas when I was sixteen. You said, “this is just new age music*.” I don’t recall how I responded, but I’m sure my response was, despite the (no pun intended) bleeding wound you’d just created, both measured and articulate. Dream pop (invented by A.R. Kane in 1988) is kind of like shoegaze, but with greater sonic/rhythmic acknowledgment of contemporary Black music (electronica, club music, literally everything else).

Weezer is a post-grunge, pop-punk adjacent power-pop band that had a perfect debut album in 1994, followed it up with a tedious work of asian fetishizing emo-prog solipsism that was beloved by critics until Trump took office, and has spent the last twenty years making amiable hack music that goes in out of fashion like the tide.

From the above descriptions, it’s pretty obvious that I don’t have any great love for any of Vail’s targets. I briefly adored shoegaze (wearing out my cassette of Loveless despite my dad’s scathing critique and even seeing Lush twice when they opened for Jane’s Addiction) but realized quickly that I preferred chonky guitar riffs over wavering soundscapes and mangled screaming by perpetual adolescents to English muttering. And if I was going to consume English muttering, I preferred it to be sprechgesang uttered by bad-toothed class warriors in nifty button-downs, as opposed to angelic bird-calling by male and female model/waifs in oversized striped pullovers. (Lush split** the difference when they went full Brit Pop. I’m not sure if shoegaze purists revere Miki Berenyi’s duet with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, but it’s the only Lush I still return to.)  In fact, the only shoegaze I ever listen to is the Philly band, Nothing. And, while easily able to make a case for their songwriting abilities, intelligent and heartbreaking lyrics, overt hardcore influence, and lineage to non-shoegaze favorites such as Suede, I’ve also never been shy about admitting that I don’t particularly care if my personal affection for them as people is an enormous factor in how I feel about their music.

Dream pop is a genre I had no strong opinion about until I started writing about music. Even the most ardent stalwart of the music would be worn down by the one hundred thousandth PR email one got pushing yet another dream pop duo, each one more indistinguishable from the last five hundred emails. As with Nothing, the only dream pop-esque artist I listen to (besides A.R. Kane) is Tamaryn. Without taking away from her undeniable talent, she’s an old downtown head, among my girlfriend’s best friends, plays with ex-screamo weirdos, and is very amusing online.

Basically, both shoegaze and dream pop have some undeniable bops. But if one were consigned to spend the rest of one's days on a desert island, with no access to the discographies of either genre... a couple Galaxie 500 cassettes and/or the cherished memory of watching the slumber of an ex-lover with obstructive sleep apnea would work just as well, while taking up less space under the island's sole palm tree.

And, Weezer, aside from the aforementioned greatness of their self-titled debut and the “Hashpipe” single, are simply not a very good band. And bands that sound like them share that fatal (if, you’d think, easily avoidable) flaw. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures and even if I did, I reserve that shallow pool of ironic listening for the occasional revisitation to Type O Negative-land. (Not to be confused with Negativland. I’m not smart enough to like that band/art conceit.)

The first half of Tobi Vail’s tweet, ending at “dumb retro shit like Weezer,” is pretty normal trash talking. Despite the ever encroaching totalitarian dictum of “Let People Enjoy Things,” hoisted as a mid-wit banner by post-post-post-post-post-adolescent toy collectors and their sociopathic, spiritual besties in the poptimist fan-bases that litter what’s left of a shared cultural landscape, there’s still plenty of room to meanly generalize on the internet. Even about stuff our peers (people whose terrible tastes we’d perhaps be disinclined to openly dismiss in person) and friends (people whose terrible tastes we relish in openly dismissing in person) care about. But Vail did not stick to dismissal of shoegaze and dream pop and Weezer slander. She capped it with the accusation (stated, not implied) that playing any of these forms of music was inherently non-revolutionary, and implied (not stated implicitly) that reliance on guitar pedals was in fact counterrevolutionary.

It's a tribute to Vail's cultural reach that so many people freaked out. If I had tweeted it, few people, even those previously unaware of my antipathy, would have cared. I would have gotten some eyerolls and responses of “ZACK” and that would have been the end of it. And if Vail had been any number of other ‘90s musical icons, or had kept her argument strictly a matter of taste, it’s unlikely that many more people (even those who might be hurt by a beloved musician disliking their chosen genre) would cry. But, Tobi Vail isn’t just some former emo celebrity or newly-radicalized singer of Eve 6. She co-wrote “Rebel Girl.” A song that, even after correctly internalizing any and all intersectional critiques of the Riot Grrrl movement, is still nearly as revered a protest song as “All You Fascists Bound To Lose” or “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).” Having someone like that; someone who helped spearhead the (arguably) last popular subsect of punk (besides Afro-punk) that had any (mass) cultural relevance outside of sneaker sales, having them say to the reader, not just that the reader has shit taste in music, but that the reader’s shit taste in music has helped dismantle Roe vs. Wade? Well, hurt feelings abounded. You could hear DIY feathers being ruffled from Antioch to Alston. The underground shook and threatened to collapse into itself. A sulphuric faultline literally opened in the basement of Dischord House. Housing prices in South Philadelphia fell for the first time in over a decade. For fifteen minutes Gilman Street became 21+. Fred Armisen developed stigmata and someone even claimed to see the veneer of 285 Kent on a piece of burnt toast. All of indie twitter was thrown into a state of pure higgledy-piggledy-ness. Even while tempering it with a caveat of “being grumpy,” Vail’s accusation of pedal board indifference (and even some complicity) to rising facism quite understandably bummed some very nice people out. (It also bummed out Weezer fans.)

Responses to Vail’s tweet varied. A small minority agreed. An equally small minority respectfully disagreed. The rest of the responses (over 2,000 quote-tweets and counting) ranged from wry “I guess this is what we’re doing today” mockery, to monocle-popping outrage, to “fuck u” (the latter from Weezer fans largely, with probably a smattering of some of shoegaze/dream pop’s fiestier, less articulate adherents).

I’m sympathetic to the impulse behind the offending tweet. Not just because I love shit-talking and think some should be less babyish in what (non abusive/non threatening/ non hateful) hot takes they choose to take offense at. Not because I’m friendly with Vail’s sister, have a great respect for both women, and don’t like seeing a Vail attacked under any circumstances. Not just because, as a singer in a band that uses a lot of pedals, I am weirdly jealous of my bandmates for whatever reason, just like any other extremely normal lead singer person. And not because I’m as prone as anyone to such anti-punk, classic rock cringe, impulses as “well, fuckers, she wrote ‘Rebel Girl’ and you didn’t.” Rather, I’m sympathetic because Tobi Vail is just a few years older than I am. We’re both at the age when the lure of nostalgia commonly becomes almost impossible to resist. But being somewhat self-aware, and having grown up with punk, and therefore detesting the Boomer nostalgia that ran concurrent to punk’s movements, our nostalgia often takes the form of anger at young people’s own nostalgia for what we lived through already (and didn’t find too hot the first time). So instead of rote romanticism of the Woodstock Nation variety, we instead romanticise some lost integrity or “energy” that was somehow inherent in the music we did love in our youth; an integrity and energy we perceive in lacking in young people’s insistence on aping the music that we didn’t love so much. As opposed, of course, to some theoretical new, revolution-appropriate sound that we’d undoubtedly be inventing ourselves if we were still nineteen. So what if, when we were ourselves actually nineteen, we were (in an example chosen totally at random) aping the Germs and X-Ray Spex from a decade previous.

Plus, again, Weezer is not currently a good band, and hasn’t been one for as long as most of the angry repliers have been sucking up air on this already resource depleted planet.

I’m also (with the obvious, I hope, exception of any “fuck you”s) empathetic, if not entirely sympathetic, to the angry responses.

I mean, the tweet, while inarguably more amusing and grounded in some truth than all those abominable Trump-era "Why Is There No Protest Music" thinkpieces that it faciley resembled, was pretty incorrect.

The ways in which Vail’s position can be seen as wrong are plentiful but also fascinating. (As I've said, fascinating to me at least. If I didn’t find the larger questions that they lead to interesting, I wouldn’t base an interminable essay on what is a minor blip in the history of online pile-ons. Especially compared with, you know, all the violence and economic inequality and whatnot.)

First off, is any genre of music inherently political? Subscribing to the belief that politics is just another name for how we all get along, and just having returned, still covered in smeared corpse paint and splinters of antifa smashed sun wheels, from the Apolitical Black Metal Wars of 2011-2020, I feel pretty strongly that all musical genres are. This doesn’t mean, however, that I subscribe to the belief that anyone who disagrees (or is just exhausted by the discourse) is exhibiting an escapist weakness only allowed by their privilege or, worse, claiming the possibility of neutral aesthetics as a feint to hide their apathy or secret cache of Burzum hoodies.

That said, even Vail’s strongest detractors seem divided on the question. On one hand, some of the best burns and glibbest dismissals of Vail’s position seem to take for granted the absurdity of attaching any (positive or negative) political importance to shoegaze or dream pop or Weezer whatsoever. Whether positing that to use aesthetics and politics interchangeably is reductive, or just implying (in that only slightly less odious sibling phrase to “you should smile more”) that Vail thinks too much, a number of responders seem to believe that no aesthetic, unless explicitly political, should have to bear any political freight at all. That it’s pure self-aggrandizement to think otherwise. I don’t agree with this assessment. A rudimentary overview of any genre, from jazz to black metal, makes clear that cultural context, and therefore politics, is indivisible from the art it holds. And, in the case of most music made by a diaspora, politics is baked in from the start.

I do however think Vail's framing of: "the guitar pedal industrial complex is not the sound of the revolution" was taken as bait, intended to provoke, or, worse, taken as that sorry cousin of bait; a provocation, earnestly felt. While implying that shoegaze, dream pop, and Weezer are politically meaningless (or at best shitty soundtracks to protesting), Vail also strongly implies that the trifecta's collective impotence stands in stark contrast to… something else. Some other music that is appropriate for mass civil disobedience. She wisely omits what this other, more system burny, music might be. But the omission leads even a sympathetic reader to assume she means “punk, like I, Toby Vail, used to make.” Maybe she meant Odetta. Maybe she meant Death Grips. Maybe she had something new and fabulous in mind that Twitter's character limit prohibited her from mentioning. Either way, it was nuance is as nuance does for your average online Marxist with a Swervedriver tattoo, and the line was responded to accordingly.

The other side of the divide (within the "yay shoegaze/dreampop/Weezer camp) came from those who believe that shoegaze and dream pop are indeed political, but not in the stultifyingly hobbled-by-nostalgia way Vail sees them. A member of Dummy (a band I wouldn’t consider dream pop, but what do I know) used the fact that shoegaze and dream pop are genres that have been historically more accepting of, and embraced by, members of various marginalized groups to make the point that they are political by nature even without the other trappings associated with “rebel” music. They also suggested that, at the genres' best, dream pop and shoegaze are sonically radical. Which raises the question, at least to those of us who don’t particularly love the sound of a million Deftones blooming, whether being sonically adventurous is in of itself an inherent virtue. Also in Dummy’s favor (besides that their new album is fab) is the fact they chose to subtweet rather than hassle Vail directly with a quote tweet. Just like Che fomenting revolution in the hills of Bolivia.

For myself, while believing that all art is at least contextually political, I do understand the wariness (from both Vail and some of her detractors) to ascribe politics to the specific genres in question. Both dream pop and shoegaze are notably absent of any overt aggression or dogmatism. This aversion to, well, direct eye-contact, while admirable in the various contexts of certitude, machismo, and misogyny that were prevalent in the time of those scene's inception and still (perpetually) exists around them, does allow for any number of readings. But, despite having never read a lick of theory or Marx, and having only a vague notion of what "materialism" means outside of '80s Madonna culture, I do think any art worth reading (or listening to) is worth reading deeply. There ain't no true escapism in this world but death. And until that certainity arrives, I'm all for thinking too much, till we're collectively balls deep in nuance.

Take, for instance, the aforementioned shoegaze/dream pop/post-Weezer band, Nothing, who inarguably helped lead any revival of those modes. That band's lived experiences have led them to a general contempt that skirts the edges between learned despair and black metal-ish nihilism. They have publicly resisted any pressure aimed at the band in hopes that they’d join whatever social movement/boycott was in vogue at any given time. In that narrow way, the wall of mournful sound has matched a refusal to be ideologically pinned down that occasionally verges on performatively anti-political. But even while espousing a marked distrust of the intentions of many of their supposedly more left-leaning peers, they’ve still managed to be a multi-racial, proudly working class concern that’s quietly done carceral reform work from time to time, in between eight balls and bouts of crippling depression. To say nothing of the mental health issues that the band's catalog both interrogates and revels in. (True to form, the band responded to the perceived tweet insult by advocating for an equitable redistribution of grief rather than full communism.)

Considering the specifics of this specific case, at the risk of pleasing no one, and (at the risk of sounding liberterian about shoegaze) solely for myself one more time, I think everyone is wrong as per usual, even the people who are right. My politics are personal and I don’t like pile-ons. Even when the target is wrong and also started it. Hell, maybe especially then. All these shoegaze fans being so sensitive, you’d think they were in twee bands. And, indulging in the hero worship that punk was supposed to kill but, it being just music, failed to, I do think being in Bikini Kill grants a motherfucker a bit of slack. So I’m siding with Vail, and asking everyone to, in the future, play dignified, righteously non pedal board music in their headphones when they’re attending a riot. Like CCR… or Gary Numan… or Beefeater… 16 Horsepower… Big Daddy Kane... stuff like that.

But, really, the specifics aren’t (outside the usual prurient pleasures of watching near strangers yell at each other online) what’s interesting here. Conceding that it could have been phrased better, Vail’s question of why musicians play what they play, and what that might mean (if anything), is worth thinking about. Is art political if it’s purposely blurry? If the band members are vocal enough online to offset the vagueness of the lyrics? If we eventually agree that all art is political, then what about the tools we use to make it? If this guitar kills fascists, why are the pedals centrist?  And do we assume equal political value to all art, regardless of its forward-face qualities? Is an agreement on what art might be something we even want? And if it's not, do we have to change all those headlines equating joy with rebellion? And, shit, if shoegaze is revolutionary, what’s the black metal version of shoegaze known as "blackgaze"? How many French national socialist black metal riffs can an ostensibly left wing band recycle before their practice space whiteboard resembles the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact?

Anyway, intentionally or not, these are questions that Tobi Vail has raised. I thank both her and those who clearly felt the questions warranted even the briefest further investment in their incipient carpal tunnel syndrome!

(And, in the interest of both sides being full of very fine people, I’ll offer some advice to Ms. Vail. Next time use “post-metal” as your apolitical whipping boy. Even the kids know that shit sucks. We all would’ve thrown you a parade.)


*He didn’t mean it as an insult. And I’ll be the first to admit that New Age music has as many bangers as any genre. But I was 16…

**No pun intended here either. I forgot Lush had an album called Split. Zohra wants me to make it abundantly clear that the Lush album, Split, rules. She said, “don’t lie about history, Zack.”

BONUS: Here's some of Vail's great bands and some of the great bands that took issue with the tweet.

I had posted the wrong Dummy before. Apologies to the correct Dummy!